The Farm of Rotting Corpses in Tennessee

The Farm of Rotting Corpses in Tennessee


[MUSIC] BILL BASS: You get
a good, cold day like this, you don’t– the decay rate is
not very rapid. It’s slow. So it’s slowed down on
a day like this. If you were here in the
summer, it would be going gray guts. I’m the person that founded
what’s called the Body Farm, which is a research facility
that we use to find out the length of time since death or
the changes that occur to the body and how long
does it take. And there are multiple
variables, the major factor being temperature. So you decay faster
in the summer than you do in the winter. And you have all the others. The clothing or no clothing. And this facility is set up to
look at all those variables. I came here June the
1st of 1971. Knew the medical examiner. The medical examiner asked if
I would serve as a forensic anthropologist for medical
examiner system. And I said yes. And it wasn’t long before bodies
started coming in. And about half of the
first 10 cases were maggot-covered bodies. And the police don’t ask
you, who is that? They ask you, how long
have they been there? I think the reason for that, in
the criminal justice system they’re trained the sooner you
get on the chase, the more likely you are to
solve the crime. Well, I didn’t know a
thing about maggots. And I looked in the literature
and there really wasn’t much there. And so I thought, we’d better
do some research on this. Because I want know what
I’m talking about when I talk to police. So I went to the dean in the
fall of ’71, in November of ’71 I went to the dean. I said, dean, I need some land
to put dead bodies on. And that was the beginning
of the Body Farm. JON JEFFERSON: He was the first
person to have this idea to research what happens
to bodies after death and when it happens. And the first person– or at
least the first person to do something about it. BILL BASS: We have a number of
individuals who will kill their wives or kill
their husbands. And what do you do with a dead
wife or dead husband? Well, you gotta get rid of it. But how do you do that? Well, one of the things is
to go out in the yard. Mainly in the flower garden. And dig a grave. And somebody looks out and sees
and says, what you doing over there? Well, you can’t say you’re
burying your husband. So you put a concrete slab over
it and say you’re pouring a little patio. We have a lot of bodies buried
under things like this in our culture today. This was a master’s thesis in
which we’re using ground penetrating radar to look
through the concrete and go down underneath it. It’s interesting looking at
that project over the nine-month period that this
master’s thesis ran. You could see that there
was a body under there. And as time goes by, you
can see the body decay. But normally, if you go out to
a crime scene, you wouldn’t get that nine-month sequence. JON JEFFERSON: He’s funny. He’s charming. He’s genuinely good-hearted. I can imagine that someone
without all those attributes might try to set up a facility
like this and just get nowhere with it. But he is legendary and beloved
in east Tennessee. BILL BASS: There’s a skeleton
there that has no cover on it except for the leaves. Here’s one of the bones
way down here too. That’s a [INAUDIBLE]. Put it back up there. REBECCA WILSON: I handle the
William M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection. It is the end product of
our donation program. And those individuals that have
willed themselves to our program to be used for both our
decomposition research as well as the skeletal aspect
of our research. My name is Rebecca Wilson. I am the Assistant Coordinator
of the Forensic Anthropology Center. This collection started
in 1981. And anyone that wills themself
to our program to be used for research at the Anthropological
Research Facility is eventually brought
here and is stored here in perpetuity. So they are stored– as
long as we exist, they will be here. Currently we have just over
700 individuals in the collection, which makes it the
largest collection in the United States of modern
Americans. It exceeds the next largest
program from about 400 individuals. So it’s fairly substantial. We had individuals where
they have been directly affected by a case. Whether they were a victim or
they had a member of the family that was a victim. And those individuals are
usually more interested in the decomposition research. And they really want to be used
as much as possible for forensic-related research at
our research facility. We also have people
that we just want to be used for teaching. They’re either the individuals
that want their skeleton on display in a classroom, which,
obviously we cannot. And we tell them that having a
skeleton restrung or kind of put back together is not
as beneficial for us. So we have those individuals
that are just like, I want to be used for teaching. And those individuals that
choose that and highlight that are more of the academics. A lot of them– you’ll see a lot of nurses and
a lot of teachers that say, I really want to be used
for that aspect. Obviously, when we go on a case,
you’re starting in your head putting pieces together. And know where to look when
you get back to that lab. So to me, having the skeletons
available in the collection is a way so that students can learn
what they are expected to find and know in the field
and in the lab situation. But also be an avenue for
research with those age indicators. Looking at, OK, the difference
between males and females. Looking at the way we age. Because those are things that
do change with time. And having a modern collection
available to do that is extremely important. So we get now– this past year we’ve had 26
researchers from other institutions coming just
to use the collection. And that’s amazing. And the number of requests
increases every year. And so to me, it’s a value. This is a data set. And it’s a resource for
other people to use. BILL BASS: They’re having
troubles in courts these days where the average juror is a
member of the community. And CSI has been so successful
that people think if you don’t do it like it’s done
on CSI then there’s something wrong with you. And so you’ve got to
convince them, hey. We don’t get it done
in an hour. And it takes a little bit more
research than what CSI shows that’s going on. We’ve had a couple
of experiments. We wanted to reproduce death in
a trailer to see how long it takes for a body to
decay in a trailer situation like that. Occasionally we’ll try to
reproduce a crime scene which there’s not much in
the literature on. And that was one of the ones
that we’d done that. And there’s a body
under there. And the reason we cover them up
with black plastic is that maggots don’t like sunlight. So when a body is out here, and
you have it in the sun and the shade and so forth, the
maggots will get on the body. But they will get down
under the skin. So they will leave the
skin as an umbrella. You will find a body
out sometime. It looks fairly good
condition. But when you get up to that
body and look at it very carefully, you’ll find that
the skin is just leather. Literally it has turned
to leather. And there’s nothing there
but a skeleton with a leather covering. And what we’re trying to
do is to get down to the skeletal remains. We put that on there so that the
maggots will do a better job of cleaning the
skeletons off. We have buried here
five burials. When we buried the individuals,
we ran pipes down and ran pipes through
the body. And this is to get the
compounds, the volatile fatty acids that are given
off the body. One of my doctoral students
who’s doing this project has found over 500 compounds
that are given off of decaying bodies. Now not all 500 of those are
equal in identifying a body. But he has designed a sniffer. A handheld device that you can
walk across the ground. And if you find one of those
compounds that he’s using in his data bank, you can
tell that there’s a buried body there. So this is the type of research
that we’re doing. Now the next question
that comes up. The reason they’re still here. Do you get the same compounds
given off of a body that’s been dead two years that
you get the first year? We don’t know that. So we left it. And we’re now in the
fourth year. These things have been
here four years. And there are some decreases
of some. But, of course, how long are
you going to leave them? Well, I don’t know how long
we’ll leave them. It’ll depend on when you get a
point of diminishing returns. But we do have individuals– we do have cadaver dog handlers
who say that, oh, their dogs can smell
Civil War graves. Well, that’s 140 years ago. I don’t know. I wonder a little
bit about that. But we do now have the
techniques in forensic anthropology area that we
can go about looking at things like that.

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